The ‘Minimal Facts’: 4 Reasons We Can Believe the Resurrection Is True

Justin Brierley Contributing Writer
Published: Mar 27, 2023
The ‘Minimal Facts’: 4 Reasons We Can Believe the Resurrection Is True

So, how can we know the resurrection of Christ—the epicenter of the Christian story to which the rest of Scripture points—is, in fact, true?  

Skeptic Frank Morison was a journalist and novelist in the 1800s who set out to prove the resurrection of Christ was a myth. Contrary to his expectations, his investigation led him to conclude that both the resurrection and the Gospels that testify to it made historical sense. He was changed by the Bible in his venture to debunk it, leading him to become a professed Christian, and sharing his written testimony, Who Moved the Stone?, with the world.   

This is just one example of famous atheist or agnostic scholars who were transformed by the Gospel when they set out to disprove its validity. Esteemed archaeologist and New Testament scholar William Ramsay was raised in atheism. Acclaimed surgeon Viggo Olsen was once an impassioned agnostic. Writer and theologian C.S. Lewis had been an ‘evangelistic atheist.’ Each of these prominent figures had earnestly devoted themselves to discrediting the Word of God—yet, the evidence led them to discover the Scriptures not only to be true, aligning with historical evidence and logical reason, but also compelling, ultimately drawing each of them to faith. They each renounced their former beliefs and dedicated their lives to sharing the truth of the Gospel.  

So, how can we know the resurrection of Christ—the epicenter of the Christian story to which the rest of Scripture points—is, in fact, true?  

I have found the method popularized by historian Gary Habermas useful - concentrating on the historical facts which are agreed upon by the vast majority of both Christian and non-Christian New Testament historians. Looking closely at the ‘minimal facts’ we can see how the resurrection of Jesus is in fact the most rational, coherent explanation for the agreed upon evidence.  

1. The Crucifixion 

Jesus’ death on the cross is all but universally accepted by ancient historians. The overwhelming collective scholarly evidence—from both Christian and non-Christian researchers who have studied the New Testament and the surrounding historical context in-depth—points to the fact that Jesus was crucified.  

Why is it significant for us? Because the resurrection would not have happened without a dead body to begin with.

Rejecting the crucifixion of Jesus only tends to occur in the extremes of ‘Jesus mythicism’ or among Muslims who believe the Koran’s denial that Jesus died in this way. Both are in conflict with the consensus of historians. The story of the crucifixion is found in all four Gospel accounts, as well as in various independent witness accounts, such as that of Roman-Jewish historian Flavius Josephus.  

2. Women and the Empty Tomb

According to the historical concept of the ‘criterion of embarrassment’, most people are highly unlikely to fabricate stories that reflect badly upon themselves. It is much more likely that people invent or embellish stories that paint them in a positive light.

 The criterion of embarrassment turns out to be an important historical clue to establish the veracity of the accounts of the empty tomb. The fact that women were the first at the scene acts as an important piece of ratifying evidence for the story’s historical authenticity. 

In a culture where women were treated as second class citizens, with no legal standing or credible voice in the eyes of the court system, it would make absolutely no sense for the male-dominated early church to choose a group of women to be the first ‘witnesses’ of the empty tomb—especially when these men could have claimed the tomb to be empty themselves. Additionally, it was these very men—who later documented these women's accounts—who initially disregarded these women, calling their story “nonsense” and even saying they did not believe them (Luke 24:11). 

Yet, the discovery of the empty tomb by a group of Jesus’ female followers is central to all four Gospel accounts. The female witness to this event is not the way that first-century followers would have tried to fabricate such an event, making it all the more compelling for our examination of the truth today. 

3. Eye-Witness Accounts

It is also widely accepted across Christian and non-Christian scholarship that Jesus’ followers reported experiences of seeing the risen Christ. For instance, non-Christian New Testament scholar Gerd Lüdemann said this:  

“It may be taken as historically certain that Peter and the disciples had experiences after Jesus’ death in which Jesus appeared to them as the risen Christ.” 

Historical records also don’t support the idea of these eyewitness accounts being falsified or changed over time through word-of-mouth transmission. In fact, in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul quotes a creed from the early church, affirming the resurrection and its eyewitness accounts. This creed likely goes back to within a few years of the events. These were not half-remembered accounts, documented at a late stage or diluted by the passage of time.   

Regardless of whether historians believe that these documented experiences were really of the risen Christ—it is a historically accepted fact that Jesus’ followers claimed to have seen the risen Jesus. 

4. The Unlikely Growth of the Early Church

There were various leaders in first-century Judea with Messianic pretensions who accumulated their own followers; yet, whenthese proclaimed leaders were persecuted and executed, their followers returned home to their own people or began searching for a new ‘Messiah.’ However, what they never did was to begin boldly testifying that their Messiah had risen from the dead—primarily because this would have run counter to every expectation of their Jewish faith.  

While the Jewish faith does teach on the concept of resurrection occurring in the end times, there was absolutely no expectation for any individual—especially a Messiah—to be raised from the dead at the time when Jesus was resurrected. Yet, Jesus’ followers went about proclaiming his bodily resurrection to everyone. 

 Where did this strange claim, so alien to devout Jews, come from? And what led to their new boldness and growth in numbers? Having just found themselves crushed and defeated after losing their leader in the most agonizing, humiliating death imaginable—they suddenly became a remarkably confident group, boldly determined to share the Gospel at all costs without fear of rejection, persecution, brutality and execution from their very own people.  

Subsequently, the Church grew at an exceptionally rapid rate. This is another widespread fact across New Testament scholarly research and literature. 

A theory that fits the facts

When it comes to these four ‘minimal facts,’ (and there are others that could have been mentioned) proposed theories that explain the events in purely naturalistic ways just don’t seem to fit the evidence. If the disciples had somehow robbed the tomb, why would they then endure suffering and persecution for a lie? And without having an expectation of a Messiah being resurrected, why would they hallucinate a risen Jesus?  Why put women as the first at the scene? 

Since that first Easter, numerous individuals set on disproving the Word of God have ended up being changed by it, unable to deny its truth, stepping into faith in Christ. This is because the evidence points to the Truth.

In reality, the ‘minimal facts’ listed here are anything but minimal; these facts point to a reality that makes sense not only of the events of the first Easter, but the reality of resurrection in the hearts and minds of generations of people ever since. It has shaped the world we live in and continues to change lives today.

Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/Boonyachoat

Justin Brierley is Theology and Apologetics Director for Premier Insight, which hosts important conversations surrounding issues of faith and belief, equipping listeners to live as confident Christians. Their ‘Big Conversation’ series, in partnership with the Templeton Foundation, launches Season 5 on April 7 with Bart Ehrman and Justin Bass debating the Resurrection.